Canada’s Translation Bureau Ordered Again to Address Interpreter Hearing Injuries

Canada Interpreter Hearing Injury Issue

The Canadian Bureau of Public Services and Procurement (PSPC) is the government agency that oversees the Translation Bureau, which is in turn in charge of supplying linguistic services to Parliament and federal departments. In April 2024, PSPC published a statement announcing the approval and implementation of additional health protection measures for interpreters.

As the use of remote meetings for official government business increased in the 2010s, interpreters began experiencing and reporting issues related to working conditions in these scenarios, all exacerbated during pandemic-related virtual interpreting. At that time, the Translation Bureau provided what it deemed were “firm recommendations” on interpreter protection during virtual Parliament sessions, but no measures were actually implemented until much later.

Interpreters for Canada’s Parliament Hill staged numerous protests about the health risks imposed by the lack of “limits to exposure to potentially harmful remote audio.” Hearing injuries during hybrid and online parliamentary sessions due to poor sound quality, acoustic shock, and the Larsen Effect (sharp, sudden feedback) have been well documented, including through surveys conducted by the Canadian chapter of the International Association of Conference interpreters (AIIC).

Long after the pandemic was considered controlled, Canada’s Labor Program, Employment and Social Development mandated the Translation Bureau to take steps to enforce standards and protect the health and safety of federal interpreters, with a deadline of February 2023.

A statement from the Translation Bureau followed a month later, detailing some of the measures it had implemented, which included a maximum of three hours of remote interpreting daily with no reduction in pay. Shifts in the booth had also been cut from six to four hours for some time. However, interpreter shifts were once again set at six hours shortly after, in April 2023, causing more protests. 

The Larsen Effect

Some of the main concerns interpreters continued to voice in 2023 were related to “compressed and digitally modified sound,” and many interpreters were still experiencing acoustic incidents during remote interpretation sessions.

The Translation Bureau implemented a series of concrete measures, which included the use of specially-designed interpretation consoles, a technician at each meeting requiring simultaneous interpretation, the use by all speakers of ISO-compliant microphones (or risk not being interpreted at all), the appointment of a Director of Parliamentary Affairs and Interpreter Well-being, tests and data collection by independent consultants and laboratories, and the choice for interpreters to stop working when sound quality is insufficient or if there is an acoustic incident.

In its latest intervention, the Labor Program issued a new direction to the Translation Bureau “ordering that interpreters be protected from exposure to the Larsen effect.” Cases of the Larsen effect are chiefly the result of equipment mishandling, and the Translation Bureau implemented additional steps in this regard. 

To comply with the latest Labor Program mandate, interpreting headsets now offer better protection against the Larsen effect near an open microphone. Likewise, there is more space between microphones in an effort to avoid audio feedback due to equipment proximity, and improved instructions to people about the precautions to take to prevent the Larsen effect.